Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 640 - 659)



  640.  From both Health and MAFF?
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes. There will be no food standards research. Obviously on the margin there is always going to be collaborative work in terms sometimes of animal health, for example, but the ones that can be defined, in effect ring-fenced—which is not the phrase that we would use in other respects of the Bill—the ones that we can define as ring-fenced as food standards and safety, that budget will be handed over to the Agency. In broad terms we said £25 million. The fact that MAFF suffered a cut in its research programme might mean it is £23 million or something of that order, but that will be the budget of the Agency to start with and it will have total freedom about how it spends that budget, total. It will not receive instructions; it will decide how it spends that budget. As for the research projects, some will come to an end fairly quickly, others, as I say, are on three years, very tight contracts. We only do research. We have no blue skies research. All our research is policy-driven. All of it is out to tender. Every single bit of MAFF food research goes out to tender. None of it is automatically placed in-house with our own laboratories.

  641.  So if the budget is £23 or £25 million and it is not being directed what the research is, what would the view be of ministers if it chose then to spend substantial amounts of its research budget on the effects of salt intake on diet or fat intake on diet or sugar intake on diet or nutritional elements rather than on straight microbiological research?
  (Mr Rooker)  We could send you a paper, I have no doubt, but it would be a bit long, of the current food standards/safety research projects that are on. Some are quite small, some are quite large. The fact is that at any one time in MAFF there are 2,000 projects on-going. We receive in MAFF 800 research papers a year, three every day, from our research programme but that is the total MAFF research programme. So you can see that a substantial percentage of that is on food, but they are policy-driven.

  642.  What I am saying to you, Minister, is that we seem to be a bit fudgy about nutrition and where that is actually sitting in the Bill.
  (Mr Rooker)  No, we are not.

  643.  How would you feel if the response was that the Food Standards Agency of its own volition chose to put the majority of its research budget into elements that were to do with nutrition and health promotion?
  (Mr Rooker)  I can put it this way. We have a reason for every research project. Nobody gets a bright idea. There has to be a reason. It is policy-driven. Policy divisions control most of MAFF's budget. The Chief Scientist is left with only £8 million out of £130 million. It is policy-driven for a reason. The nutritional aspects of what MAFF does now which goes into the Agency—you have to forget there will not be any in the future—already take place now. They will go over, so the nutritional slot of the 20 segments of nutrition that are exclusive to the Agency, some of those are within MAFF at the present time and they will go over. If research in those policy areas is going to be undertaken within the overall research budget, then it will take place, but there will be a mechanism for deciding. It will not be left to an individual person.

  644.  It will not be directed by Ministers?
  (Mr Rooker)  No, it will not.

  645.  So when this budget is set up and we have day one of the Food Standards Agency, how much of its hands will be tied by its taking across research from MAFF that is coming across and it therefore cannot initiate or commission its own particular research?
  (Mr Rooker)  It obviously depends upon the date of vesting day. The budget is there, the programmes are under way. We are not going to abandon research projects where we have entered into contracts following competition.

  646.  But how much of the £25 million will be tied up? All of it?
  (Mr Rooker)  Most of the projects are, as I say, on a three-year cycle. It is not specific; there are some that take longer, some are shorter, but on average a three-year cycle. Within the first year a third of the projects will finish and, therefore, that budget will be available.
  (Tessa Jowell)  May I come back to your earlier point about the Agency's freedom to determine what kind of research it commissions, because it will be free to commission the research that it sees fit to commission. Again I think there is a very important point in your question about the nature of the relationship between the Agency and the Department of Health because, as a Health Minister, I think if the Agency decided that in the first year it had substantial leeway, that it was suddenly going to commission or to commit all its research budget on a study of the link between salt and broader aspects of health, I would expect the Agency to explain why they saw that research as being necessary. I would also expect them to take account of other research in the field that was being conducted, research that was being conducted by the Department of Health. If this were simply seen as an assertion of the Agency's independence and in a sense was being used for that purpose rather than for the substantial importance of understanding more about what is an important aspect of nutrition, then I think you would want some pretty frank discussion about whether or not this was a real priority when our state of understanding about transmission of E. Coli and other aspects of microbiological risks to food safety are undeveloped. They would have to have a good case for going for a priority which may seem at the margin rather than at the centre of their concerns.

  647.  May I ask how you see the research is going to be done because, of course, we have the closure of Norwich——
  (Mr Rooker)  With respect, we have not got the closure of Norwich, we have got the transfer of Norwich to York so that the Central Science Laboratory is on one site. I do not want a hare running that we are closing down a food science laboratory. We are not, we are moving it. Sorry about that but we have to get the facts right.

Chairman:  May I thank the Minister for that clarification.

Mrs Organ

  648.  In that case, do you see the FSA as having its laboratories or do you see it as just commissioning across the place or using York?
  (Mr Rooker)  It will be free to place its research where it wishes. As I have said, all the MAFF food-related research at the present time is put out to tender. None of it is directed to MAFF laboratories, whether it is the Central Science Laboratory, the Veterinary Laboratory or any of the others. So it is all put out to tender to get the best value.

  649.  But we are talking about an independent Food Standards Agency?
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes, of course we are.

  650.  We are not talking about MAFF and the problems that we have had in the past.
  (Mr Rooker)  We have not had any problems with the research, with respect, but the ethos of putting research work out to tender is a matter, I think, of good public administration. The Food Standards Agency will not own a laboratory and, therefore, it can choose, it will have to choose, how it places its research contracts. I would imagine under the rules of normal government tendering it will probably use tendering. I cannot say but the fact is that some of that research may end up in MAFF laboratories, some of it may not. There are lots of laboratories in this country dealing with food research that are in the public sector, the private sector and some between the two, and they do valuable work at the frontiers of science and technology. I would imagine the Food Agency would want to use the best value and the best science and the best laboratories it can for its research work.

  651.  May I ask both of you what you consider to be the scope. You are not giving direction but what would you feel would be the scope of the kind of research that the FSA, maybe in its third year when it is a bit freed of previous commitments, should be going into, the range?
  (Mr Rooker)  It depends on the policy objectives at that time of the Agency. Do not forget, the Agency is there to give policy advice to government as well and, therefore, occasionally new processes may come on stream, new techniques, new foods. It is that kind of issue sometimes that drives the policy people to say, "We had better commission some research on this." Where problems might be highlighted we will shift the research budget to do extra work, as we did over, if you like, the tin in the tomatoes rather than the tomatoes in the tin which came out of issues like that. So that research has to be paid for. For example a new area, one that has come out of our own work is looking at packaging. It may be a surprise that in theory most of us will say that recycling is a good idea. I have learned that it is not a good idea per se because recycling paper, board and materials which have been used for all kinds of products in the past and which end up in new packaging to package food can be a bit tricky because some of the chemicals that were around for the original purpose of that packaging are a bit dodgy for food. Now, these are areas that we look at now because there is a policy issue as to whether we ought to have some research so that we can make sure any policy changes or the conduct of the policy is based on sound science and not based on a hunch, so I cannot second-guess what will be happening in three years any more than anybody else can.

  652.  Can I ask two final questions. One is that obviously since information, packaging and labelling on packaging is crucial for us to do something about raising confidence and standards, would you think it was acceptable that research should be spent on the effectiveness of publicity, information, the effectiveness of labelling or are we going to end up with a bottle of water that has a label attached to it like a booklet?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I think that it is very important that as the Agency develops, new approaches to labelling, either with the food manufacturers or independently, the impact and usefulness of that information is assessed systematically and I think I made this point when we last gave evidence, that it is of great concern to me that millions and millions of pounds are spent on what are broadly described as health promotion campaigns and usually the publication of quite expensive leaflets and booklets which are then launched on the public and we simply do not know whether they have had any impact on improving levels of understanding or changing behaviour. I would hope that it would be an absolute discipline of the Food Standards Agency that when they embark on this kind of work, they also invest money in making judgments about its effectiveness.

  653.  Obviously there will be some residual responsibilities left with MAFF. What influence will the FSA have over MAFF or the research that is carried out, for instance, on farm work?
  (Mr Rooker)  In respect of the research, as I have said, going back on the figures, MAFF's total budget is about £130 million for research and that obviously includes the environment, animal health, welfare, flood defences, coastal protection as well as food safety and hygiene, and I am sure I have obviously missed out some other crucial area, horticultural research, plant health. These are all areas, as I say, for which at any one time some 2,000 projects are being funded. I would imagine in the course of time that there will be research projects that the Food Standards Agency wants to know about or wants to influence or indeed have collaborative arrangements with other agencies over, particularly in respect of either work on the farm or animal health and those issues. One cannot say at the moment and this is why in seeking to ring-fence the budget to hand over that it is not precise, black and white, but at the edges there will be, I am sure, some projects where it is, if you like, thought to be more animal health than food and I think that is important, but the idea that the Agency is going to be sort of stand-alone, not talk to anyone, not have any arrangements with other people and with other institutions I do not think is the case. It is not possible to define it, I think, in the way you are asking the question at the present time because we are not looking for a revolution in the arrangements, as it were, to tear it up and start on a clean sheet simply because of the amount of work that is already in train, but I would imagine there would be quite substantial collaboration.

  654.  It is a rather unfair balance of the research budget, is it not, that MAFF will be left with a £100 million research budget by the time you have taken out the £19 million?
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes, so?

  655.  So we are looking at a £100 million research budget for MAFF for its responsibility for fisheries and farm producers, but we are only going to put £19 million into virtually the rest of the food chain.
  (Mr Rooker)  Well, speaking from memory, there is probably the best part of £25 million on the environment and I do not consider that to be a waste in the pejorative way that you seek to put it.

  656.  I am just saying it is an uneven distribution of the resources.
  (Mr Rooker)  Then there is coastal defences, the money we are putting into crop protection, improving yields. You cannot make a distinction like that because you are not comparing like with like.

  657.  So how much of the MAFF budget will be on research that is to do with something in the food chain and which is not coastal defences or the environment?
  (Mr Rooker)  Well, nothing insofar as everything we can identify that is food standards and food safety-related goes to the Agency. The fact, if you like, that we have got research in crops and that side of it, all right, we eat the crops and you might call that food, but I do not.

  658.  I think a crop is a food, is it not?
  (Mr Rooker)  Well, the fact is that it is another division and that side of it is not necessarily food standards and safety in a way that we can make a discrete ring-fencing of it. It is not possible. That which we can ring-fence for food standards and safety, which is very substantial, will go to the Agency. That which we cannot will remain with MAFF. That does not mean to say that there will not be collaborative projects or there will not be a spill-over from one to the other.

Chairman:  You might want to take that up in the adjournment as to whether crops are food or not.

Audrey Wise

  659.  Can I stay briefly with the scope of the work and then come on to the powers of the Secretary of State. Last time you were here, I asked a question about relationships with other departments, other than the Department of Health, in particular on things that were important in food and, Tessa, you said that it would be inconceivable that if a minister from the Department of Social Security or DETR contacted the Agency for some information they would be denied it. I think that is reasonable and that tells us that a department, other than yours or indeed MAFF, could contact the Agency, but could the Agency proffer advice? I will give another example, not the sort I gave last time, but another example. In relation to school meals, to what extent can the Agency offer advice without being asked? The Department for Education might be perfectly happy or perfectly oblivious about something, but, for example, I had occasion some time ago to take up an issue in my area which was to do with the delivery of vegetables to schools twice a week and they were kept in water, prepared vegetables, cut up and put in water and soaked from Monday to Friday. Now, that seems to me to be quite an important issue. If I, as an MP, or a teacher or in fact a school cook, who raised this issue with me, or a parent approached the Agency and said, "This goes on in my area. Can you do something?", because it clearly affects the standard of the food because half of the vitamins have gone into the water, to say nothing of things going black and slimy, could the Agency then look at that and then say to the Department for Education and Employment, "This is not satisfactory. Will you please do something?"?
  (Tessa Jowell)  The answer to that is yes and I think that clause 9 takes care of that point. In those circumstances, I certainly hope that they would.
  (Mr Rooker)  It is like other Bills in that reading the Bill does not tell you everything about it and you have got to read the notes on clauses. If you look at the note on clause 9, you will see that the Agency has got a prime function of advising the Government on food standards and safety, ie, any Secretary of State. On the other hand, I would say, Audrey, that if it has gone black and slimy, the local authority should have been called in well before anyone went to the Agency because they are the enforcement authority for food safety and standards.

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